TORONTO — Morgan Rielly and his Maple Leafs teammates knew something no one else did when they huddled together for dinner before the start of the 2016-17 season.
“We knew that we were going to be better than everyone thought and I think the coaches knew that (too),” said Rielly. “And we made a conscious effort not to let anybody else know what our expectations were for one another, because they were high and because we didn’t want people to know that and to create their own opinions.”
The Leafs ultimately made a 26-point jump in the NHL standings from last season’s bottom finish, unexpectedly made the playoffs and nearly pushed Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington to seven games in the first round. Their season ended Sunday night in a close series with the Capitals which saw all six games decided by a goal — five of the six ending in extra time.
Toronto shattered expectations all season long, just not among the players. Sneaky belief started with a rookie class that looked ready-made for the NHL at training camp — even before that in the case of Auston Matthews, who played alongside Rielly with Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey.
Leaf players looked to Rielly for the inside scoop on Matthews. Was he the real deal? Would he be the team’s best player?
“Uh, yeah,” Rielly responded.
Then Matthews scored four goals in 22 minutes in his NHL debut and those teammates knew for themselves.
Mike Babcock had a pretty good idea about Matthews, who would become one of only six teenage rookies to score 40 goals, but he didn’t know how ready the rest of the rookies would be. The Leafs coach wasn’t even sure that Mitch Manrer, a top-40 scorer by season’s end, would make the team.
But Babcock quickly recognized what he had.
Veteran Milan Michalek was jettisoned after five games when it was clear Connor Brown was able to play higher in the lineup, and it wasn’t long either before Nikita Zaitsev, a 25-year-old Russian rookie, was moved to the team’s top pair. Babcock would eventually use Zaitsev more than any other defenceman and Matthews more than any other forward.
He employed a handful of rookies on the penalty kill, including Zach Hyman, who averaged more shorthanded ice-time than any other NHL forward.
It was the effective melding of all that youth and inexperience into his lineup which has made Babcock a likely contender for the Jack Adams Award. Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello was unaware that Babcock hadn’t won before.
“But I’ve said continuously that Mike is the best coach in the game and there are reasons for that so I think you can draw whatever you want from that,” said Lamoriello in a recent interview.
Players sensed Babcock’s confidence in them and were encouraged by summer additions like goalie Frederik Andersen and Roman Polak, a nasty veteran defender who played with the club a year earlier. The Leafs also enjoyed career years from returning veterans Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk.
It was the readiness of all that youth, though, which really drove the surge while keeping expectations low on the outside. Young teams aren’t supposed do much except demonstrate growth over 82 games.
“There was a lot said about us not being able to win because of our age. In this room, you don’t even pay attention to that,” said Rielly, shortly before the Leafs were eliminated by the Capitals.
“When you look at how good the players are and how good the coach is, the systems we have in place, I think that there’s no one who can really tell you that can or can’t do something. It’s just a matter of putting your mind to it and being motivated and just going out there and doing it.”
After Game 6, in a dressing room which exuded both disappointment and optimism, van Riemsdyk noted how the Leafs would no longer surprise teams next year and with that expectations will rise — not just internally but externally too. Toronto will now be judged not just on getting into the post-season, but winning a round and maybe two and it won’t be long before Stanley Cup contention enters the conversation.
“We have places that we want to go. We have goals that we want to achieve,” Rielly said. ”It’s not going to happen in one year. It’s not going to happen in two years. It takes time. And it takes a lot of commitment. So I think we have a ways to go, but I think that there’s some pride to be taken in the fact that we’ve got it going in the right direction, we’ve made strides forward and we’re on our way.
“It’s just a matter of being committed and staying the course.”